Beating ovarian cancer: Marion's story

Ovarian Cancer Month is drawing to a close. Despite this, it is vital that we continue to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and its devastating impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of women worldwide.

According to Cancer Research, there are around 7,400 new ovarian cancer cases in the UK every year, which equates to a shocking 20 cases every day. Only around 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. This often leads to catastrophic consequences for individuals and their loved ones. More work could always be done to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and ensure that people know how to spot the signs of this distressing illness. 

Marion Brennan was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 64. Marion kindly sits down with us to share her experience, including intimate details on her own grapple to reach a confirmed diagnosis, as well as her more positive experience when receiving treatment in the form of debulking surgery at The Priory Hospital in Birmingham.   



Marion, tell us about your diagnosis journey? 

I visited my GP in 2018 with what was diagnosed as a urinary tract infection (UTI). What I didn’t know then was that a tumour was growing inside of me and that the UTI was a symptom of it. The infection cleared with antibiotics but the urgency to go to the toilet – a symptom of ovarian cancer – remained.   

In May, I returned to the same GP with a burning, swollen ear. My GP prescribed antibiotics, but my condition worsened and days later the right side of my face dropped. I was admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham with a possible minor stroke. It turned out to be Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, caused by the chickenpox virus, which can be reactivated when your immune system is low. I was told that my immune system was at rock bottom. Doctors later told me that the tumour was taking over, killing off the ‘super cells’ we all have to protect us from fatal conditions. 

"It wasn’t a partial prolapse, it was the tumour growing inside me and pressing on my bladder. I was 64 but fit and healthy, with hardly a day’s illness in my life." 

I made a complete recovery but in June returned to my GP. I was concerned about my urgent trips to the loo and asked for an internal examination. She said I had a partial prolapse and told me pelvic floor exercises would help. It wasn’t a partial prolapse, it was the tumour growing inside me and pressing on my bladder. I was 64 but fit and healthy, with hardly a day’s illness in my life.  

Around this time, I started recording in my diary that I felt “chronically tired”, “weary”, “exhausted”. In October, I started post-menopausal bleeding and was immediately referred to the Women’s Hospital, Birmingham, and then on to the City Hospital’s specialist Gynaecological Oncology Centre. In November, almost a year after my first symptoms, I was told there was a high likelihood that I had ovarian cancer. 

creative image of womb

How did you feel when you heard the news? 

Initially, I still thought I’d be okay, given my healthy background. I really thought I was superhuman. But the consultant who broke the news gently impressed on me the seriousness of my condition. I was stunned. As a journalist, I had met and written about many women going through cancer. Their stories touched me every time. Never in a million years did I think I would be one of them. 

"As a journalist, I had met and written about many women going through cancer. Their stories touched me every time. Never in a million years did I think I would be one of them." 

How did your diagnosis impact the people around you? 

My family gathered me up and took over. There were tears, but there was also practical stuff going on, such as research into the disease and what treatment was available. The consultant couldn’t tell me when the NHS might be able to operate, but that surgery was critical. The tumour had grown massively in a month and was now 23cm by 22cm in size. I looked like I was five or six months pregnant. We decided to go private. The next morning, I discovered that my company health insurance already covered me for any treatment. The relief was indescribable. 

What treatment did you receive and what did it involve? 

On December 14, I had six-hour debulking surgery at The Priory Hospital, Edgbaston. My surgeon, Janos Balega, said it was the biggest tumour he had ever removed, which made me feel strangely proud. I remained in hospital for a week, recovering. Then on January 10, I learned that, despite the best surgery I could have hoped for, that the cancer had spread. I learned I was stage 3b, an advanced stage, and that I would need chemotherapy. I was shocked to my core to learn that 80 per cent of women are not diagnosed until they are at this late stage. 

"I learned I was stage 3b, an advanced stage, and that I would need chemotherapy. I was shocked to my core to learn that 80 per cent of women are not diagnosed until they are at this late stage." 

Can you tell us about your experience at The Priory? 

The hospital staff at The Priory were wonderful, attentive but not intrusive, professional, caring and always made me smile. My hospital room was comfortable and it was good to have an en suite bathroom as walking was a slow and painful process at first. I felt very supported by everyone, from the consultants to the cleaners. 

Mr Balega checked in on me every morning, which I found reassuring. He is an exceptional doctor, not only for the quality of his surgery but also because, at a very human level, he could relate to the turmoil of emotions I was experiencing in those early days of diagnosis. He was also supremely confident that he could help, and that was inspiring at a very difficult time. He was not only my incredible surgeon but also my unofficial counsellor.



I well remember him giving me a pep talk during an early morning post-op visit when my darkest thoughts had taken over. Those five minutes gave me the boost I needed to pick myself up and give myself a fighting chance. He filled me with absolute confidence that I had a say in this and that I could influence my recovery. That was so important because a diagnosis of cancer is overwhelming. 

Later, when I asked my chemotherapy consultant, Mr El-Modir, whether my previous history of good health was helping me to sail through chemotherapy, expecting him to praise my general fitness, he replied no, that it was the surgery I had received from Mr Balega, one of the finest surgeons in his field. I feel so lucky to have been his patient. 

After six sessions of chemo treatment over four and a half months, I was told I was clear of cancer. That was a good day. However, the road to recovery has always been tinged by the knowledge that there is a high likelihood of the cancer returning within two years. I have been taking Niraparib capsules to reduce that prospect. 



How do you feel after having that treatment?

Physically, I feel fighting fit again. Emotionally, I feel hopeful. Halfway through chemo, and with the help of counselling, I turned a corner in my head and came to terms with what had happened to me. I’d say my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude that I’m still here thanks to the amazing surgery and aftercare I received. I am a loving-life kind of gal. I love every small inconsequential bit of it – a well-made cup of tea, an apostrophe in the right place, a West Bromwich Albion win. I’m not ready to give up on these simple everyday pleasures yet. 

"I am a loving-life kind of gal. I love every small inconsequential bit of it – a well-made cup of tea, an apostrophe in the right place, a West Bromwich Albion win. I’m not ready to give up on these simple everyday pleasures yet."

Thank you for sharing your story. Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

The love of family and friends has played a huge part in my recovery but, even so, I desperately needed to speak to women going through the same nightmare as me. The charity Ovacome was able to do this for me. Sadly, due to lockdown, I didn’t get to meet any of them in person but the group’s online forum was a great place to hear other women’s experiences and to learn what to expect from their own personal stories. They became my tribe. I would encourage anyone given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer to contact them.  

I’d also like to add that a lot of work has to be done with primary care givers to give more women a fighting chance of surviving ovarian cancer. I plan to work with my GP surgery about raising awareness – I don’t blame them as the symptoms are unclear - but it’s evident from my own story that not enough is known at a basic level about this particular form of cancer. If early diagnosis is the most important factor in controlling this terrifying disease, then educating GPs should be the number one focus. 
 

For more information about The Priory Hospital, Birmingham, please click here.  

For more information about ovarian cancer, please click here. 

To find out more about our treatment packages and Consultants, call us on 0808 101 0337 or make an online enquiry.

 


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